WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Julio Cortez

10 Nov 2016 | Commentary

U.S.-Colombia Relations Now

Donald Trump and his campaign said [almost nothing] about Colombia, the Western hemisphere’s largest recipient of U.S. assistance and Latin America’s third most-populous country after Mexico. So it’s nearly impossible to guess where he would take U.S. policy toward the country widely viewed as Washington’s closest Latin American ally.

Two likely scenarios emerge, though. Both are pretty grim for anyone who wants to see the United States play a role in helping Colombia’s peace negotiations succeed.

1. “America First.” That was Trump’s main foreign-policy slogan, and it seems to presage an isolationist pullback from the world on a scale that the United States hasn’t attempted since the 1920s. For Colombia, an “America First” approach would mean less assistance—probably including less military assistance—and far less diplomatic support, if any, to the Juan Manuel Santos government’s efforts to secure peace with guerrillas. It may also mean an effort to pull back from the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has criticized.

2.“Handoff To the Old Guard.” With little presidential interest in Colombia, the part of the Republican Party foreign policy elite that deals with Latin America would fill the policy vacuum. Some members of that elite, like former Bush administration Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, [have been critical] of Trump. But if elements of this old guard take over, we can expect a policy that is more in line with the country’s right-wing opposition, led by former President Álvaro Uribe. That would mean a more critical stance toward peace negotiations and an increase in military assistance. This policy team would likely place a much lower priority on relations with Colombia as it adopts a more aggressive stance on Venezuela.

There is a third micro-scenario that is less likely but can’t be completely discarded: that Donald Trump’s favorable feelings toward Russian dictator Vladimir Putin color the U.S. approach toward Colombia and the region. Might the Trump administration take a softer stance toward Putin’s most vocal ally in Latin America, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, while distancing itself from President Santos in Colombia? Probably not, but this can’t be ruled out.

What all of these scenarios have in common is a likely pullback of U.S. support for Colombia’s peace efforts. It would be surprising to see the Trump administration name its own special envoy to the talks. Meanwhile, the big increase in economic aid foreseen in President Obama’s proposed “Peace Colombia” aid package is seriously in jeopardy. The military aid in the package, less so.

The coming change will be abrupt. Weathering it is going to take a lot of smart activism, open-minded coalition-building, protection of human rights defenders (both in Colombia and perhaps at home), and, although “the truth” seems to have little power in political debates at the moment, persistent citizen efforts to reveal it.